Can Drinking Coffee Stunt Growth in Children by Affecting Sleep?

Caffeine Use May Contribute to Sleep Deprivation and Impact Height

Coffee or caffeine consumption in children or teenagers may stunt growth due to impacts on sleep and growth hormone release
Coffee or caffeine consumption in children or teenagers may stunt growth due to impacts on sleep and growth hormone release. Getty Images

From my own childhood, I can recall my grandma fixing a cup of coffee in the kitchen and telling me that I couldn’t have any because it would stunt my growth. Can drinking coffee actually stunt the growth of children or teenagers? How does coffee or other caffeine consumption affect height? Discover the role of slow-wave sleep, growth hormone release, and the surprising truth and misconceptions surrounding this idea.

Not Just Coffee – The Stimulating Characteristics of Caffeine

First, it is important to not only blame coffee in the possible impacts on growth in children and adolescents. In the past, there was concern that coffee could affect calcium absorption and bone growth and remodeling in children. There is no evidence of this impact on bone density in teenagers. Caffeine may have other effects, however.

Caffeine is a stimulant. It is found in soda pop, coffee, tea, energy drinks, and chocolate in varying amounts. When consumed, it has a half-life for 4-6 hours. This may vary somewhat based on an individual’s metabolism and tolerance. It may cause increased alertness, insomnia, anxiety, jitteriness, and heart palpitations. Caffeine may be dangerous at high levels in some children due to its cardiac effects. How might caffeine affect both sleep and growth?

Sleep Impacts May Affect Growth Hormone Release

Consumption of caffeine early in the day, such as at breakfast, likely has little to no effect on sleep in children or adults.

However, later consumption (especially in the hours preceding bedtime) may start to impact sleep. It may cause trouble falling asleep, lead to insomnia, or delay the desired bedtime. This may reduce the amount of time in bed, restrict the total sleep time, and lead to sleep deprivation. Important consequences may occur in children when they don't meet their sleep needs.

Slow-wave sleep predominately occurs in the first one-third of the night. This is when growth hormone release and this hormone is critical to height development. Sleep deprivation, or fragmented sleep from conditions like sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, may undermine this important sleep. With reduced slow-wave sleep, less growth hormone may be released and children’s growth may be affected.

Therefore, in theory, if caffeine is consumed later in the day it may lead to difficulty falling asleep, reduced total sleep time and reduced slow-wave sleep, restricted growth hormone release, and stunted growth. There is no research into these potential phenomena, mostly because it would be unethical to cause children to be shorter by exposing them to caffeine.

Diminishing Impact As Growth Spurt Ends

It is important to remember that caffeine, including coffee, has short-lived effects. If consumed earlier in the day, with adequate sleep obtained at night to meet sleep needs, there is likely little reason to be concerned.

In adults, once the growth spurt of puberty has ended, the impacts on growth are irrelevant.

It may be prudent to encourage consumption of caffeine in moderation among children and teenagers. As these fluids often replace milk and may reduce the intake of vital nutrients, it might be best to reserve the consumption as a special treat rather than a daily indulgence.

Maybe my grandma was right to be cautious about giving me coffee. There may be a possibility that excessive, late consumption of caffeine could impact both sleep and growth. If you are concerned about poor quality or inadequate sleep, explore these issues with your child's pediatrician or a sleep specialist.

Sources:

Higdon JV, Frei B. “Coffee and health: a review of recent human research.” Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2006;46(2):101-23.

Kryger, MH et al. "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine." ExpertConsult, 5th edition, 2011.

Striegel-Moore RH, Thompson D, Affenito SG, Franko DL, Obarzanek E, Barton BA, Schreiber GB, Daniels SR, Schmidt M, Crawford PB. “Correlates of beverage intake in adolescent girls: the National Health, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study.” J Pediatr 2006 Feb;148(2):183-7.

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